Recipient Biography

James Reed Ellis


A retired municipal bond lawyer, James Reed Ellis has never held public office, never headed a major corporation, and never been rich. Yet he has left a bigger footprint on Seattle and King County in Washington State than perhaps any other single individual, as a citizen activist for more than half a century. His legacy includes leadership campaigns to clean up Lake Washington in the 1950s, successful passage of levies to finance mass transit, parks, pools, and other public facilities through “Forward Thrust” bonds in the 1960s, preservation of farmlands in the 1970s, the building and later expansion of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in the 1980s, and establishment of the Mountains to Sound Greenway along the I-90 corridor in the 1990s. Jim is known for his tenacity when taking on an issue; most of these projects became realities only after y ears of opposition. He has been profusely honored, including the First Citizen award of Seattle-King County in 1968, the national Jefferson Award in 1976, and Lifetime Achievement recognition from theAmerican Lawyer in 2005.

“When you think of the legacy of the Northwest,” cites former Seattle Major Norm Rick, “and we all have – a cleaned-up Lake Washington, the green open space, and even the viability of downtown Seattle – Jim Ellis’s name is at the top of the list. He truly is a visionary who has dedicated himself to bettering his community.”

“Visionary” is a word often associated with Ellis, along with “venerable” and “indefatigable.” Even his critics acknowledge the innate political skills that allow him to turn many dreams into realities. Admirers such as former Washington Governor (and later U.S. Senator) Dan Evans, who appointed Ellis to the University of Washington’s board of regents in 1965, praise his ability to listen calmly to divergent points of view, find common ground, and build support for his ideas. Microsoft founder Bill Gates once said he wanted to do as much good for his community as Jim Ellis had. Bob Gogerty, a political consultant who was an aide to former Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman in the 1970s, predicted Ellis will “go down maybe as the most significant man in this community ever” (The Seattle Times, 1987).

Ellis himself tends to minimize his accomplishments, stating, “If I ever do a book, it’s going to be called ‘Friends Along the Way,’ about all the people who didn’t get credit for these accomplishments. It was not a one-man job.”

James Reed Ellis was born on August 5, 1921, in Oakland, California, the first of three children of Floyd and Hazel Reed Ellis. His father, a native of Dayton, Washington, was trained as a lawyer, but became an import-export businessman instead, specializing in trade with China. His mother, who grew up in Spokane, was a housewife. The couple lived in California for a few years in the early 1920s. After the birth of a second son, Robert, in 1923, the family returned to Washington State, settling in the Lakewood neighborhood of Seattle. A third son, John, was born there in 1928.

All three sons attended John Muir Elementary School and Franklin High School. The family had a close relationship from the beginning, but Jim and Bob, only two years apart in age, were inseparable. Their bond was cemented during the summer of 1937, when their father decided they needed a lesson in self-sufficiency. He deposited them on five acres of woodland that he had bought along the Raging River, near upper Preston, with ample groceries, two dogs, and instructions to build a log cabin. Jim was 15; Bob, 13.

It rained nonstop for the first four days, thoroughly soaking the boys and all their gear. But by the end of the summer, they had a serviceable cabin. The only help they got came from a mason, sent by their father to camp with them for two weeks. He built the fireplace, using rocks the boys hauled from the river.

The brothers continued to work on the cabin for three years. Ellis still uses it. “That was a wonderful experience, because we learned to do things by ourselves,” he says. “But it was very hard work. We had to do everything by hand, and it took much longer than we expected. We had to figure everything out by ourselves.” The experience taught him lessons that have served him well. Dan Evans agrees: “He puts in so much work ahead of time; he has answers before you have questions.”

Jim and Bob Ellis enlisted in the military on the same day, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II in 1941. Jim, who had graduated from Franklin High School in 1939, was a senior at Yale University. Ellis graduated from Yale in 1942.

That summer, he fell in love with Mary Lou Earling, daughter of a mining engineer in Alaska. Mary Lou had grown up in Nome and Fairbanks. When she reached high school age, her parents sent her to Seattle to attend the elite, private Bush School. Ellis met her for the first time while they were both still in high school, at a gathering arranged by his mother, but he initially paid little attention to the woman who would become the love of his life. “I had terrible reverse snobbery for people who had money and went to private high school,” he says. “We lived in a big house in Lakewood, surrounded by smaller houses, and I developed great sensitivity to that during the Depression.”

The two reconnected during the summer of 1942. As Ellis tells the story, they were on a date, driving along Lake Washington, and Mary Lou bet him that she could climb a madrone tree faster than he could. To this day, he thinks she let him win. “From that time on, there wasn’t any other girl for me,” Ellis declared. They were married on November 18, 1944.

Two of the brothers were called to active duty on the same day in March 1943. The Army took Bob, made him an infantryman, and eventually sent him into combat in Europe. The Air Force sent Jim to a cadet training program in meteorology. The repercussions of that chain of events would play a major role in the evolution of Jim Ellis as a local civic legend.

In February 1945, less than three months before the end of the war in Europe, Robert Lee Ellis was killed by an artillery shell that exploded on a battlefield near Trier, Germany. Jim Ellis was devastated by the death of his beloved younger brother. Finally, Mary Lou told him: “You have to get hold of yourself. You’re trying to throw your life after his. Why not make your life count for his?” The idea of “doing something extra” – to make up for what his brother might have done if he had lived – was a powerful thought, one Ellis hung on to through all the years to come. It became “the seminal drive for my public service life”

Jim Ellis graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1948. After passing the bar exam the next year, he joined the law firm of Preston, Thorgrimson and Horowitz (now Preston, Gates & Ellis). Acting on a vow to devote one-quarter of his time to public service in honor of his brother, he became a member of the Municipal League, Seattle’s leading progressive reform organization. He quickly became involved in his first major civic undertaking, supporting the League’s efforts to rewrite the King County charter.

In April 1952, a League-backed slate of newly-elected “freeholders” (citizen volunteers) hired Ellis as their attorney to help draft a new charter. The goal was to modernize and professionalize city and county government, in an effort to reduce patronage and corruption. Ellis took a leave of absence from the law firm and technically became an employee of prosecuting attorney Charles O. Carroll, who strongly opposed the proposed reforms. It was, Ellis says, “a hostile environment,” made worse by the fact that on his first day on the job, a lawsuit was filed that challenged his appointment and halted his salary. He and Mary Lou, with three children by that time, were down to their last $20 when the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the appointment was valid.

The proposed charter would have replaced the three-member partisan Board of County Commissioners with a seven-member nonpartisan County Council and an appointed County Administrator. It was opposed by both major political parties, by organized labor, and by many courthouse employees. In November 1952, voters rejected the proposal by a margin of nearly two to one.

“Losing can be a good teacher,” says Ellis. “While licking our wounds, a few of us asked ourselves whether we had been on the right track. I asked myself whether improving the internal structure of county government would make much difference to the congested traffic, polluted water, and sprawling developments which were spreading across the boundaries of cities and counties, beyond the control of either” (Ellis, 5). That soul-searching led to what Ellis considers his greatest contribution to civic life, the creation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro) and the cleanup of Lake Washington.

In November 1953, Ellis walked into a forum sponsored by the Municipal League at the YMCA in Seattle, carrying his signature brown leather briefcase. It contained a speech that called for the creation of a new kind of government – a federation of municipalities – to improve water quality, garbage disposal, transportation, parks, and land-use planning in King County. Ellis hoped to convince his audience that “effective answers to certain urban problems required area-wide action and that our effort as citizens could ignite that action.”

The primary impetus was the pollution of Lake Washington. In the 1950s, more than 20 million gallons of raw and partially-treated sewage were being discharged into the lake every day. It took more than five years and one defeat at the polls before voters approved a slimmed-down Metro, focused only on sewage collection and treatment.

Ellis became known as the “father of Metro,” a label he wears proudly, even though at one point critics said what he had fathered was a Communistic exercise in big government. “People could see that we weren’t just cleaning up sewers,” he says.

Encouraged by the success of Metro in cleaning up the lake, Ellis and some of his fellow reformers developed the most ambitious plan for public works ever presented to King County and its critics. Ellis again served as point man, challenging the region’s leaders to prepare for the future with a “forward thrust” of capital improvements, including parks, fire stations, swimming pools, a domed stadium, an aquarium, a modern zoo, improved streets and storm sewers, low-income housing, and rail rapid transit. The wish list added up to more than $815 million, to be financed by voter-authorized municipal bonds.

In February 1968, King County voters approved seven of 12 individual “Forward Thrust” bond propositions. Among them were measures to build a $40-million multipurpose domed stadium (the Kingdome), the Seattle aquarium, and 25 county swimming pools. One of the propositions set aside $118 million to develop new parks and trails, including Discovery, Freeway, Gas Works, Waterfront, Marymoor, and Luther Burbank parks and the beginning of the Burke-Gilman Trail. Voters also approved bonds to improve Woodland Park Zoo and Sea-Tac Airport.

Ellis devoted much of his energy in the 1970s to the issue of farmlands, preservation, helping to win passage of a $50-million county bond measure to protect farms and green belts threatened by development. With that victory, in 1979, he turned his attention to the most contentious public works project he would ever be involved with: the construction and then the expansion of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center.

Seattle boosters had been dreaming of a convention center for nearly 20 years, hoping to duplicate the success of the 1962 World’s Fair. A convention center was initially on the list of projects to be financed by Forward Thrust bonds, but it was dropped before being presented to voters in 1968. The recession of the 1970s revived the idea of a convention center as a means of easing the region’s economic woes.

In 1982, the Legislature agreed to help finance what was supposed to be a $90-million convention center. Ellis ended up serving first as vice-chair and then chair of the center’s board of directors, for nearly 20 years. The State Convention and Trade Center was completed in 1988, at a cost of $186 million – more than twice the amount originally budgeted. Ellis said it was a “smashing” success and “worth all the pain” (The Seattle Times, 1988). Yet within just a few years, he was campaigning to double its size.

Court challenges blocked expansion plans for several years. Construction did not proceed until the center’s board promised to replace all the low-income housing lost to the project. The expansion was completed in 2001, at a cost of $195 million. Ellis points out that the center ended up building or rehabilitating three units of low-income housing for every unit it demolished, and has repaid, with interest, all the money borrowed from the state general fund to finance construction.

In 1990, Ellis took on another major civic commitment: the chairmanship of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to preserving the scenic, environmental, and historic qualities of a 100-mile stretch of Interstate 90 from Puget Sound east to Thorp, in Kittitas County. By the time he retired as board president in 2001, the Trust had sparked land exchanges and purchases that moved nearly 125,000 acres of land along the I-90 corridor from private to public ownership.

Of all the projects he’s been involved with, Ellis says, this one would have been closest to his brother Bob’s heart. For the more than 15 million drivers a year who cross Snoqualmie Pass, it will mean green vistas instead of strip malls along the highway. For the cougar, elk, and other wildlife in the forests, it will mean safe passageways above and below the highway. For schoolchildren in generations to come, it will mean easy access to a living environmental laboratory. Ellis doesn’t promise miracles as a result of this work. “We’re going to make modest gains along the edges,” he says. “We’re not going to change the world, but we may teach. And the people we teach may change it.”

The cleanup of Lake Washington, the dozens of parks created through the Forward Thrust bond initiatives, the Convention Center, Ellis says “the psychic rewards” of his involvement in these and other civic endeavors “have been huge.”

Jim and Mary Lou Ellis had four children: Robert Lee Ellis II (named for his uncle), born in 1946, now a teacher at the Bellevue International School; Lynn Earling Erickson, born in 1951, a teacher and historian in Olympia; and Steven Reed Ellis, born in 1955, a beekeeper and environmentalist in Barrett, Minnesota. Another daughter, Judy, born in 1948, was killed in a car accident in 1970, along with her young husband and their nearly full-term baby.

When Ellis received the Isabel Colman Pierce Award for Excellence in Community Service from the Young Women’s Christian Association in 1985, he asked that it be shared with his late wife. “Mary Lou’s ideas and unwavering support multiplied my effectiveness by more than a factor of two,” he said. “Any person who goes on point for a public cause needs to gain emotional strength from family support. I remember coming home tired and discouraged on many occasions, but by the next morning, Mary Lou always had me cranked up and ready to charge.”

Harvey Manning, veteran hiker and trail-guide author, once called Jim Ellis “a certifiable public saint” (The Seattle Times, 1994). But Ellis has also encountered many skeptics over the years, including some who accused him of pushing public works so he could make money by selling the municipal bonds required to finance them. Ellis agrees that he and his law firm profited from his work as part-time counsel for Metro for 21 years, from 1958 to 1979. On the other hand, the first billed Metro for much less than it billed its private clients. And beginning with Forward Thrust, he donated to charity any money he earned through the sale of bonds on projects he supported.

2010 Pugsley Medal recipient Martin Rosen, past president of the Trust for Public Lands, praises Ellis for his contemporary and far-sighted perspective, “the environment has benefitted because Ellis considered it an essential component of community life along with health, education, transportation, energy, and jobs. He has brought together diverse interests to benefit the entire community.”

“Life is interesting,” Ellis says. “If you just refuse to become cynical, it’s really quite fascinating. And, in some degree, it’s inspiring to see all our differences and to see that the system – hopefully, hopefully – can still function.” As for himself: “I’ve had a wonderful life. I was married to an unreal, wonderful woman. I had fabulous children. And I’ve known some wonderful people as a result of my civic work.”

Microsoft founder Bill Gates once said that he wanted to “do as much good for his community” as Jim Ellis has done for his. As his good deeds continue to enrich the lives of most every Seattle resident, Jim Ellis’s advocacy and public service for over 50 years stands as a hallmark of citizen leadership.

Note: Content edited from an article by Cassandra Tate in the Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, Essay 7833, July 5, 2006). [Current as of November, 2011]